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The BBC's big play for the game space, led by Dr. Who

The BBC's big play for the game space, led by Dr. Who Exclusive

February 20, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

Late last year, BBC Worldwide and Three Rings launched a preview of Dr. Who: Worlds in Time, a massively multiplayer adventure game, and this March, they're planning to formally launch it -- and with it the British media corporation's hopes for the future of the franchise's online presence.

"If we're doing our jobs right this will become the largest Dr. Who community online ever assembled," Robert Nashak, executive vice president, Digital Entertainment and Games, BBC Worldwide, told Gamasutra.

Nashak, pictured, came over to the BBC from EA two years ago and set up his team in both Los Angeles and London, with the goal of working with platforms, developers, and the entertainment industry -- all based in California -- while remaining close with management in the UK.

Nashak says that his digital team is "very, very closely aligned" with BBC management. "From our CEO down, this is a big initiative... Everyone sees it as a very very big opportunity, particularly as 'gamer' gets redefined," he says.

"Unlike other media companies," says Nashak, the BBC's goal is "to move away from a licensing model around our brands and our IP, and really start from ground up thinking holistically and 360 to reach our fans on any platform that they might be on."

"Over time, my goal for my group is to help influence the rest of the company to be thinking much more in a transmedia way, moving forward," says Nashak.

The team has so far launched mobile apps and got Top Gear content into Microsoft's Forza Motorsport 4, but Worlds in Time is something altogether more elaborate -- "a big investment" and a "big commitment" for the BBC.

This project represents the first attempt at its new commitment for "creating deep and immersive worlds", per Nashak, and "a living, breathing community where you can interact with other fans."

What Kind of Game is WIT?

The game is a free-to-play MMO, in which players -- recruited to help Dr. Who unravel a complicated conspiracy -- adventure throughout the galaxy with AI partners or friends.

Though it focuses on puzzle gameplay for moment-to-moment fun, the overall game is story-driven. "You are very much tied into the mythology of Dr. Who," says Tom Schofield, Three Rings' COO. It's not a form the developer has tried before, but thanks to the fact that the team in San Francisco is "working very, very closely with the creative team out of England," says Nashak, it's executing on that level.

"We decided we had to do it, because Dr. Who is about narrative," says Schofield. The other elements of the game are well within its comfort zone, however. (Think Puzzle Pirates.)

Schofield echoes Nashak in his hopes for Worlds in Time to become not just a game, but the most important community for Dr. Who fans on the web. He hopes for "a community with wiki and forums," which will result in "a more permeable membrane between people who are part of the community and those who play it for a little while." The goal is to "support the brand as a whole, rather than being a little community off to the side."

The game will formally launch in March, but it's been in development a year and a half. More importantly, says Nashak, is that it's a "multi-year effort that will evolve over time" and "a living breathing service that can interact and respond to what's on the TV."

In fact, Schofield hopes that the team can fill in gaps alluded to on the show with original content in the game.

Why Did the BBC Choose Three Rings?

"Really, we wanted to create a game that plays to people's wits," says Nashak, is the reason BBC Worldwide decided to work with Three Rings. And there was another reason. Rather than getting their feet wet with a small game project, Three Rings was chosen "because we knew that they knew how to swim."

Besides its MMO expertise, Nashak also approached the developer because of its skill in creating games that appeal to a wide range of ages and both genders, and its free-to-play experience. Nashak hopes the game will "drive revenue" for the BBC.

Balancing accessibility and depth is something that Daniel James, CEO and designer at Three Rings, considers most important to the project. "The trick is... to take people into a very casual-seeming experience that then brings them in to tremendous depth," he says.

"The trick is, with getting people involved in those social experiences, is getting them to enjoy the immediacy of collaborating moment to moment to succeed and then longer term goals like saving the universe... with social collaboration."

With a casual audience walking in from an established IP, he says, "It's a matter of not scaring people of at the front door." But knowing that many Dr. Who fans are likely hardcore gamers also presents another challenge, he says, "because you want to imply to a core gamer who is a big fan of the show that there is that depth behind the simple exterior."

To make sure that players form new social ties through the game, the grouping system allows players to "jump in at any time." The goal, says James, is to "make that experience frictionless."

In a fan community, "there is a genuine desire for people to reach out and make new friends," and the team is working hard to "find that balance" that players will feel comfortable with, and has been making changes to the game since its preview launch last year, based on feedback and metrics.

The Appeal of The Game Space for the BBC

In fact, says Nashak, the game industry's reliance on metrics means that the BBC can have a "closer relationship to our fans than we could through television," which appeals to the company very much.

The BBC's goal with its digital group is "trying to reach our fans on all the platforms that they love and are on," he says, because "the fragmentation of the audience is real, these days."

"We've got games coming across all platforms," he says, including a Dr. Who game, The Eternity Clock, for PlayStation 3 and Vita.

He also sees a distinct possibility of "something being developed in the interactive realm moving over to the linear realm." Something in that vein is already in the works, he said, though he declined to discuss specifics. "It is not too far in the future, and it's something that we're very much thinking about," he says.

Dr. Who: Worlds in Time is live now, ahead of its formal launch.

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