Why the BBC is investing in video games (again)
The British Broadcasting Corporation is back making noises about gaming, so what's different this time?
The BBC's history with the video games industry is long, and not especially successful.
It began making its own games in 1983, primarily for BBC Micro (the first Doctor Who game was printed on the front of an early edition of Computer & Video Games magazine). It scrapped that in favour of licensing out its IP from 1986, and then come 1995 decided to get back into games properly with the launch of BBC Multimedia - creating software based around the likes of Robot Wars and Teletubbies.
A decline in sales saw that department shut in 2006 and a return to licensing, before the BBC decided to recommit to games once again and set up a dedicated office in Los Angeles in 2010.
That office was responsible for a number of projects including Supermassive Games' ill-fated Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock, a number of Wonderbook products for PS3, plus a series of mobile apps and online titles. But success was mixed, and by the end of 2013 the BBC moved games back to the UK and focused once again on licensing.
Now the broadcaster is back once again with its new 'Gaming First' initiative. So what's different this time?
"We've developed a solid foundation through the licensing model," says Bradley Crooks, head of digital entertainment and games. "I'm not saying that Gaming First as an initiative is suddenly going to turn that on its head. For the foreseeable future, a large amount of the way that we work will continue to be on a licensing basis.
"We have had some really good successes recently, with Forza and Top Gear and with Lego Dimensions and Doctor Who. And some of the games that we have got coming through are looking very promising. That has been a great foundation and that allowed us to take the opportunity to ask what else can we do in this space?
"It also comes at a time where the organisation, through BBC Studios, is looking at a franchise-based approach. The media landscape has changed considerably over the last few years. The BBC will have to adapt with the market. We know that. The idea that we can follow the old model of producing a piece of content, and that goes out on terrestrial channels and that's the end of it... Obviously, that is not the model for the future. So this push towards a more franchise-based approach with our key IPs has allowed us to say that gaming should be a key part of that."
The BBC has enjoyed sustained success in games in recent years. Crooks referenced two of them, but there are smaller success stories on mobile and PC. That will certainly help, but one of the big advantage for BBC Studios is the recent merging of the firm's production and distribution arms.
"The media landscape has changed considerably over the last few years. The BBC will have to adapt with the market. We know that"
"That's interesting in terms of being able to fund and distribute TV content, but in addition to that - and because of that - we've looked at a franchise process with our big IPs," Crooks continues. "As part of that franchise review, gaming has had the spotlight turned on it. To build a franchise, you need to be able to look at the way you create and support your IP, and not just in one area like TV.
"Gaming isn't the only area. There are others like publishing and short-form... but clearly gaming is a big opportunity to both support the brand, bring in new users - especially younger people. But also as a means to generate revenue, and that revenue can go back into supporting the franchise as a whole."
The BBC is looking at multiple main areas for its Gaming First strategy, including investing money in video games and, specifically, developers.
"Traditionally we run a licensing business within the BBC, and that has been done by design," continues Crooks. "It's not to say that we haven't done co-investments before, but moving forward we're interested in investing in games and also the companies that make them. That investment can come in many different forms. There is actual cash investment in the development itself, but there are other ways to invest in terms of marketing support, the way we supply content, but also in areas like R&D and tech, because the BBC is an organisation that has a lot of interest in a lot of different areas. We've got a big initiative with voice and there is an R&D department that spends a lot of time looking at VR and AR tech. So there are different ways for us to invest.
"In terms of actual company investment, we need to asses how best to go into that process. There is a fairly well-trodden path for BBC Studios investing in TV production companies. Generally, the long-game was ownership of those companies, and bringing IP and skills into the broader organisation. I'm not sure whether that is exactly what our interest would be for investing in a games company.
"But as we begin to leverage the work that we do with games within a broader franchise perspective, obviously with more stuff being done in a transmedia away, it is important that we leverage our technical and creative capabilities within all the different elements. That may include having people, or companies, that we connect with who have a good understanding in a particular tech, or has access to a particular IP."
Tech is a key area for the BBC in terms of investment, especially if it's something that can help elevate brands that aren't quite so globally recognised.
"What we have always struggled with is bringing some of our other IPs to market in an efficient way," Crooks begins. "To give you an example, Luther is a really successful series for us, but outside of the UK it has a relatively small footprint.
"Luther, and shows like it, are great IP. But if you go to a developer or publisher on a licensing deal with these, they'll say that the market opportunity is relatively small. So if there are developers who have tech or platforms that could allow us to build out scalability relatively easily, that's something we'd be interested in. Interactive drama, for example. If there is a way of having a partnership with a developer that could, relatively efficiently, create interactive games around a brand like Luther. Or multiple brands - because we could obviously scale across multiple brands - that is quite an interesting thing from out point-of-view.
"If we are serious about creating a franchise around, for instance, Doctor Who, we want to be able to create games that are as relevant as the TV series"
"More generally, we are interested in companies that have a forward eye on transmedia developments. I'm particularly interested in people who are thinking two or three years down the line about what the interactive experience landscape looks like. There is definitely going to be things coming up, whether it's TellTale's super show or the plans Amazon has got, which are things that you probably wouldn't call a pure TV show, or a pure game. That is an area that my team can help facilitate some innovation within the BBC."
Alongside investing in games and studios, the BBC is eager to make games fit better with the franchises that they are based on.
"If we are serious about creating a franchise around, for instance, Doctor Who, we want to be able to create games that are as relevant as the TV series," Crooks says. "We then eventually want cross-pollination across those different channels. Being able to involve editorial teams in a more integrated fashion in the games that we produce is a key focus for what we are doing. To give you a real example of that, the new game from Tiny Rebel [Doctor Who Infinity] has had a lot of input from the Doctor Who editorial teams. We thought that was important in building the credibility and viability of the game products we create as part of a franchise."
Crooks uses the term franchise a lot, but to many fans a lot of its IP already are franchises. Doctor Who has hundreds of successful spin-off products - novels, comics and even audio dramas.
"You're right, Doctor Who is a franchise, but there is a huge opportunity for growth, especially outside of the UK," Crooks continues. "There has been some success in North America for Doctor Who, but North America is a huge market so there is a big opportunity there for the TV series. And also as part of a broader franchise. Gaming can even help reach new audiences."
Out of all of entertainment, video games is probably the area where the BBC has struggled most - at least historically. So is the Gaming First plan a recognition of that?
"It's definitely true, like a lot of companies, that some things have worked and some things haven't," he says. "We have a slightly more measured approach now. We are now looking at different market segments more than we might have before. Whereas before we might have just said that there's a great opportunity to do a game here.
"Now, in the broader context of what the ambitions are for the franchise, there is more of an integrated approach. There is a new franchise team who are considering things like how we approach the different channels. How do we bring new users in? How do we bring users from one part of the market, who are maybe playing games, to the TV series and vice versa? Part of that is having a better approach to marketing, And marketing games has always been a challenge for us. That's because the BBC public service's remit is not to do commercial content. But games is a global market, and so you need to find ways of supporting the games that we put out."
It's not all about turning BBC brands into games, though. In fact, the BBC is eager to go the other way. Crooks cites the recent news of Alan Wake being turned into a TV series as the sort of project that it would find appealing.
"Rather than always starting from TV, how about we turn that on its head?" Crooks asks. "There is a golden age of TV happening, mixed with these amazing gaming IPs, and we feel like it's a good time to be bringing some of those IPs to TV, and to a broader franchise. You'll see more deals like Alan Wake being done. Certainly we have an eye on some initiatives like that.
"In a way it is easier to turn things into a TV series than a film. Films have a tradition in this area with IP like Tomb Raider. Some of that has worked, but some hasn't. We think there's a better opportunity with TV, because it's easier to get TV productions going than major film productions. And also I think the opportunity is possibly better from a commercial point-of-view, because the risk is often less, as the lifetime of a TV series is often much longer than a movie."
It all sounds hugely ambitious, but really it comes down to one thing.
"We would like to do more stuff, basically," concludes Crooks. "The BBC is home to exciting IPs, and it's also a place where you can innovate, and not just within the gaming space, but also broadly with interactive experiences. Maybe you've seen what we did with the Life in VR app. That came out from my team. It isn't really a game, but it's interactive and represents the brand. We see that almost like a new format.
"It's a different channel to reach people and a new way of delivering great, credible, well-researched content. We just want to do more."