The most recent episode of BBC reality show The Apprentice saw Lord Alan Sugar tasking the usual cohort of ambitious businessmen and women with something a little different: developing a game for virtual reality.
Not only that, but the two teams of four were expected to do so within two days, as well as create branding for their game, demonstrate it to the public at MCM London Comic Con and 'launch' it in front of a large audience that included experts from the UK games industry.
GamesIndustry.biz caught up with Rewind, the VR developer that actually created the titles featured in the episode with the contestants, as well as the virtual boardroom in which Lord Sugar issues the task. The firm was approached by the BBC after previously working with the broadcaster on a Strictly Come Dancing project and BBC Science's educational Home: A VR Spacewalk. Founder and CEO Solomon Rogers said he was particularly keen to help introduce virtual reality to the mainstream audience it so highly covets.
"Many people don't realise that high-level virtual reality technology is available to own and operate from the comfort of their own living room, and that this is something that is possible now, not in the distant future," he says.
"The Apprentice regularly brings in millions of viewers per week: it's one of the BBC's most popular shows. Featuring VR in an episode shone a spotlight on the technology and helped raise awareness amongst the general public. Hopefully a good percentage of those who watched the episode will decide to try VR for themselves."
Perhaps inevitably, the episode immediately faced criticism online with some developers taking to Twitter to complain about how unrepresentative The Apprentice's depiction of games development was. Scenes in which the games were judged by industry experts - including UKIE's Jo Twist, PlayStation's David Wilson and Bossa Studios' Imre Jele - were also criticised for centring the discussion around the games' branding rather than mechanics and design.
"The Apprentice is primarily a show about business and marketing, so we couldn't expect them to want to delve too deeply into the game development side of things."
Sol Rogers, Rewind
Rogers, however, maintains that this was to be expected from a show that dips its toe into so many different industries. Equally, with the focus on the contestants, the screen time for his own team - the real talent behind the VR games - was always going to be minimal.
"Whilst we were heavily involved behind the scenes, our on-screen presence was limited and therefore so was our ability to influence the way VR was depicted," he says. "But The Apprentice is primarily a show about business and marketing, so we couldn't expect them to want to delve too deeply into the game development side of things.
"As we're all aware the majority of the show is dedicated to task and boardroom scenes. We knew we wouldn't be able to really walk people through the process of creating games. However, we embraced the chance to take VR to the masses through the show.
"Ultimately, The Apprentice is not a show about VR development - it's a show about business. The purpose of the show is to entertain, not educate. People watch The Apprentice for the arguments, juicy drama and the dressing down Sir Alan always gives the contestants, and the episode definitely delivered on those points."
The two teams of hopeful apprentices were shown devising the theme, mechanics and design of their games, with the Rewind developers doing the actual legwork to bring them to life. Since none of the contestants had any experience with games development - let alone with virtual reality - this proved to be challenging.
"It was tough to say the least," says Rogers. "We weren't allowed to give the contestants any extra information beyond what they'd been told in the challenge briefing. We literally just had to do what they told us to do - for better or worse.
"The main problem was contestants being overly ambitious, which is something that often happens during game jams, and asking for things that simply weren't going to be possible within the exceptionally tight time frame. We also had to remember that they knew nothing about the 'rules of VR' - for example, things like movement constraints to stop the user feeling sick."
The time frame was particularly limiting. In the episode, the contestants are shown as defining the design and structure of their game one day, then leaving it with the developers to be built in time for the next. Far from a fanciful editing trick, Rogers confirms that "development really did happen overnight".
"We managed to complete two fully playable VR games in under 18 hours, which I believe is a pretty impressive feat considering we were working with people who had never been involved in any kind of game development before," he says. "The team really relished the challenge."
Both projects were developed for the HTC Vive, with the space-based virtual scavenger hunt Gordon's Lost His Badger built in Unreal Engine 4 and underwater puzzle game Magic Shells based in Unity. According to Rogers, the decision to use two different engines comes from his team's divided preferences and became something of an internal competition to see who could build the best final product in such a short timespan. Ultimately, he remains proud of what his staff accomplished.
"Anyone who's tried it knows that game development is not easy, and this really was an incredibly tight time constraint to have to work to," says Rogers. "Obviously they're not the best examples of what can be done using VR technology and they're not going to be winning awards any time soon, but they're fun and entertaining little mini games and we welcomed the chance to drive awareness of the medium to the masses."
For the next few weeks, you'll be able to watch the virtual reality episode via BBC iPlayer.