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Assassin's Creed should partner with Stranger Things: Lessons from Changing Channels

We report back on the key takeaways from last week's TV and games conference with BBC Studios

Last week, GamesIndustry.biz and BBC Studios held a new conference discussing the convergence between video games and television. Changing Channels was attended by a mix of games and TV professionals, and featured speakers from both industries discussing the future of interactive narrative, game adaptations and more.

Below we've collected some of the highlights and we're hoping to bring you full videos of the talks.

Ubisoft forced people to choose between Assassin's Creed and Stranger Things

Karol Severin, Midia Research

The event kicked off with Karol Severin of Midia Research, discussing the overlap between the audience for games and TV. With these two markets not only competing for consumers' attention with each other but with all other forms of entertainment, publishers and developers need to be more aware of what's happening on other screens.

The example he offered was the launch of Assassin's Creed Origins, which happened to be the same day as the second series of Stranger Things went live.

"According to our data, more than half of Assassin's Creed fans are also Stranger Things fans," Severin told attendees. "What that meant was on the night of release, 56% of Assassin's Creed's userbase was forced to make a choice. And it's not like choosing a 20-minute episode of The Simpsons -- today, if a consumer chooses [a TV series], they're gone for the weekend. It's the same if they choose games.

"I understand there are challenges in coordinating releases between the two industries, and it's not easy to navigate, but if it's in the back of your mind, there could be partnerships that evolve out of this. Maybe Assassin's Creed and Stranger Things could have released a few days apart, mentioned each other and actually helped each other."

With so much competition for attention, user engagement has become both increasingly important but also harder to secure.

"You're no longer competing for dead time -- you're competing for time that users have probably already allocated," Severin warned.

TV still doesn't trust video games

Steve McNeil (pictured), co-creator of Dara O'Briain's Go 8 Bit (a show where comedians faced off in a series of multiplayer game challenges), joined us on stage to discuss the ways in which competitive gaming can be televised. Echoing his earlier interview with GamesIndustry.biz, he noted that TV executives still have some misconceptions about games and thanked the ones attending for making the effort to learn more.

"It's so rare TV people actively engage in video games," he said. "That's the difficult bit. When we were developing Go 8 Bit, and with some of the new shows I'm working on now, there's this pervasive mistrust of games being inherently entertaining in the making of TV. Even on Go 8 Bit, there was a constant push to find an angle or a format or a thing while we're playing games so that it was entertaining.

"It's exciting to see somebody do something well or fail massively. That's enough -- watching people compete is a thing"

Steve McNeil

"What online trusts with YouTube, Twitch and everything else, if people are playing games -- in the same way as sport where people are competing -- that is inherently engaging. You can pick your side, you can root for somebody, it's exciting to see somebody do something well or fail massively. That's enough -- watching people compete is a thing. But in almost every project I've been involved in, there's been some mistrust and I think that's why so many video game TV shows have failed."

Misunderstanding about gaming's priorities can also be an issue. For Go 8 Bit, the consoles and controllers were on the stage with Steve and the other contestants, but the video feed was rerouted to a larger screen at the back of the stage, rather than on a monitor in front of them. This created 0.4 seconds of lag, which led many celebrity guests to struggle with their favourite game.

Editing is also important, with McNeil urging TV people not to cut away from gameplay just for a reaction shot. The result can be discrepancies in how the match is panning out on screen.

"I still can't follow [our Super Mario Bros 3 match] in the edit, because I [on screen] suddenly go back a level," he said. "It was never explained that we died and had to start again. Sometimes when you're making it entertaining -- which it already was -- you can undermine the essence of what it is. People who like games just want to watch people playing games and you need to represent that properly, because the people who care will notice."

There's no one way to do games on TV

Presenter Julia Hardy (pictured), who currently fronts BBC Radio 1's monthly Gaming Show for iPlayer, discussed how different broadcasters need to find the right form of games content that suits both their channel and their audience.

"There's not one answer to a gaming show, there should be lots of different ones," she said. "I have channels come up to me randomly and say, 'we want to do esports, because that's big.' Why? What for? That's no disrespect to esports, but the channel I'm talking about... To get their viewer to be a League of Legends player would have been a long and very expensive process. They don't understand that gaming is just music and film, you have all these different types of people who consume it in lots of different ways."

Continuing the music analogy, Hardy said she was surprised more radio stations haven't found a way to tap into how broad games can be, offering the example of BBC Radio 6 Music and how it specialises in alternative music.

"Why don't they do a really obscure indie show?" she suggested. "They obviously love being the nerdy one that knows about the thing that no one else does -- apply that logic to games. Classic FM has Jessica Curry doing one of the most popular shows, which is all about video game music. That's the last radio station I'd have thought would figure it out, but they did ahead of the curve. It's very odd when you look at the different channels and different radio stations how really quite behind a lot of them are in their thinking."

Gameplay choices must be meaningful

Naturally, no conversation about the convergence between games and TV can be complete without discussing Bandersnatch. We went in-depth on this earlier in the year and Interior Night's Caroline Marchal (pictured), former lead game designer at Quantic Dream, offered advice on how to make a branching narrative more engaging.

"Not every choice can be big and create a branch -- that's not meaningful enough, and just as in life, you make small decisions and big decisions"

Caroline Marchal, Interior Night

"Players [need to be] able to make decisions and be free within boundaries," she said. "It's not absolute freedom, because you can't give them 20 options [for every choice] or let them create their own solution, it's still an authored story, but players can create their own path within that story. As a result, what you get is they experience the story first-hand, they make it personal, and as they do, as they make decisions and choices, they learn things about themselves, which is the exciting thing about experiencing interactive narrative."

She also touched on how to balance between branching storylines and the illusion of choice, suggesting a healthy balance of both is needed. Too many branches and the project is unmanageable, too much illusion of choice and subsequent playthroughs or viewings show how little impact the audience has.

"But you still need that illusion because not every choice can be big and create a branch -- that's not meaningful enough, and just as in life, you make small decisions and big decisions. You've got hard choices that create a big branch, and soft choices that create more local consequences or a different scene mood or will change your relationship with a character."

Embed a games producer in the TV production crew

Amazon Games Studios' Jonathan Rosenblatt shared insight into the making of The Grand Tour Game, which allows fans to recreate some of the best challenges from the show's third season. One crucial factor in creating an authentic experience was having an AGS producer working alongside the show's own production team.

"He became our real-time feedback loop, and went on every single shoot, to every single location, was in the Chiswick office with the director and all the assistants, and was able to provide briefs and photo references," Rosenblatt explained.

"For the Chongqing episode, we got all of that reference material all in advance of the team actually flying out to China. That was really important for us. If any game developers here are thinking of recreating shows of this nature, you want to think about having someone who is properly embedded within the studio."

Said producer would have weekly conference calls with the TV crew, but this would ramp up to daily as the game launch neared -- if only to keep track of changes. Vehicles the show had planned to feature, for example, might not have been available, or the silver car they ordered might have been blue when it turned up for the shoot.

"All of these small changes on a production have a massive impact on us," said Rosenblatt. "We have to be authentic to the show."

Virtual Reality is ripe for drama

Ian Hambleton, Maze Theory

Maze Theory's Ian Hambleton discussed the potential for VR, as his team hope to demonstrate with Peaky Blinders: The King's Ransom next year. The key to VR's appeal, he said, is that it can put fans in the world of their favourite shows, but more than that it can engage them with the cast.

"We've got this narrative adventure idea where you're going to really be part of the drama with the characters," he said. "There's a lot of VR that doesn't have many characters in it, but this is particularly about interacting with narrative characters, getting their trust, building relationships with it."

Naturally, the Peaky Blinders game will feature some gunplay and action setpieces, but Hambleton insists this is "the smaller part" of the experience, with the focus very much on the drama and narrative.

"Drama from TV and film translates amazingly to VR," he said. "In many ways, for fans it's like an ultra version of the franchises they love but that comes with a lot of pressure to deliver perfectly and authentically.

"It's very important that there's collaboration between the partners -- you can't just be given a piece of IP and not work with the scriptwriters or show production. The amount of time you spend with them is so key, because they own the stories and the narrative and you come with the gameplay and your understanding of VR and its possibilities."

Bandersnatch is interactive TV, but interactive is not Bandersnatch

Next up was Tim Cowles (pictured) of D'Avekki Studios, a developer that has already made multiple Bandersnatch-style interactive movies for games platforms.

Cowles opened by showing Bandersnatch and other examples of interactive TV, observing that they almost always boil down to watching live-action footage before making one of two choices. But he said this form of entertainment can be about more than a binary choice, offering the example of #Wargames -- where you choose one of several perspectives to follow and this subtly branches the story -- and his own project The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker -- which allows players to type in their own questions to ask characters.

"All these things I've shown you here are still linear," he said. "Even though they're branching, they're still linear or on rails. You start at A, you get to B -- there may be several scenes in between where if you have one choice, you may see one scene instead of another, but generally you start at A and end at B.

"Interactive TV can be non-linear. There's no reason that the interactive TV that's been made needs to push you forwards to the end. It obviously helps if you can say an experience is going to be 90 minutes long, but it doesn't have to be."

He offered the example of Sam Barlow's Her Story, which sees players piecing together the story by searching through police interview clips, or D'Avekki's The Shapeshifting Detective. The latter allows players to shift into the shape of other characters, which will impact how the others will respond to them and can even lock off branches if the relationships between them break down.

BBC Studios wants an Eastenders game

Bradley Crooks (pictured) of BBC Studios discussed how the broadcaster is trying to branch its properties into as many new spaces as possible, including games, and that the growth of gaming is evidence of its audience coming more into line with that of the BBC.

"There's an overriding view in TV circles that gamers are all young and the route to those younger audiences can be achieved through gaming platforms -- and to some extent, that's true. Especially compared to your typical viewer in traditional TV, gamers are much younger than the age group we typically see around BBC One or BBC Two.

"Gaming is a priority for us. When we talk about producing content for Doctor Who, Top Gear or Natural History, we see it as a key part of the mix"

Bradley Crooks, BBC Studios

"However, gaming is getting to the point where it's so big there are a lot of different audiences out there, and if you can target your gaming experience in the right way, it's a great way to access those audiences."

He pointed to recent research that shows record numbers of people aged 55 or more playing video games in the UK -- interestingly, the average age of a BBC One producer is 61.

Crooks also touched on the properties they have already explored with video games -- Strictly Come Dancing, Doctor Who, Top Gear -- as well as other its hasn't, such as Luther and Eastenders.

"Yes, I'd even like to do an EastEnders game at some point," he said, later adding: "Gaming and digital in general is a priority for us. When we talk about planning around our franchises, when we're looking at producing content for Doctor Who, Top Gear or Natural History, we see gaming as a key part of the mix. We want to look at this for new IP as well.

"What's important from our point of view is being integrated into the process from an early stage. Too often, when you're working with TV IP, you get in too late. By the time you've got a partner it might be series three, and by the time the game is done it's series five. That's fine for projects like Doctor Who and Top Gear where they're evergreen, but for new IP, it's not going to work that way. We want to get much more involved at a much earlier stage. There's a certain amount of education with that, we need to work with our production crews to bring them up to speed on what's required from their point of view. Hopefully, we'll be able to talk about what we're doing in this area in the near future."

Games should adapt TV IP, not recreate it

Finally, award-winning writer Leigh Alexander (pictured) closed the day with a discussion about how TV shows can be translated to engaging gameplay and interactive narratives, drawing on her own experience with Reigns: Game of Thrones.

Historically, video game tie-ins have been "a pretty plodding and serious shot-for-shot cinematic reproduction of the existing thing", but Reigns and its swipe-to-choose mechanic allows players to engage with their favourite characters and explore potential endings for the show. Alexander says this "proves there are other ways of offering an in-road to the experience of an IP without literally reproducing the key moments."

Some shows will, of course, translate better than others. The Grand Tour makes sense as a driving game, because the show is about driving, but there are plenty of programmes for which the established games genres don't really fit. But Alexander believes this presents an opportunity to be more creative.

"We don't have to say that because Killing Eve is a drama, we now have to provide the player with a crime-solving drama," she said. "Instead, what is one aspect of this show that would make sense to render through the game? Perhaps it's a relationship with a character, or you could find a way to abstract the interface. Our Game of Thrones game is about playing Tinder, it's not about literally riding around wielding swords.

"We have to use the power of games to be less literal. With the power of television production, we can create immersive dramas using the best practices of television and cinema -- those are not appropriate practices for games, but we have to figure out how to translate the strengths of an IP from one context to another and it's not going to be a one-to-one reproduction."