Doctor Who has always been the BBC’s most progressive IP. It helped shape the idea of what a science fiction TV show should be and has been causing kids to cower behind the sofa for almost 40 years in the process.
The Doctor Who series has had a few videogame incarnations over the many years, but the BBC has assembled an impressive team in order to produce this latest digital outing. BBC Wales, Sumo Digital and adventure games legend Charles Cecil are all involved in creating a new generation of videogames for a new generation of Doctor Who.
We caught up with BBC Wales’ Ian Tweedale, Sumo's Sean Millard, Phil Ford (writer of the first two episodes) and Charles Cecil himself at Sumo’s studio in Sheffield to find out their experiences with bringing the Doctor to life in their own way.
Ian Tweedale began by saying,“We see the current series as a 17 episode series with 13 TV episodes and 4 episodes that you can play online. We also wanted to really appeal to as broad a demographic as we reach with the TV. There almost is a media literacy angle to it where we wanted to introduce gaming to a much wider audience than are maybe familiar with it. To do that through the Doctor Who brand was very appropriate.”
Of course, if there ever was an IP that could manage to appeal to a wider audience whilst still engaging the hardcore gaming element then Doctor Who is it, and with gaming technology way better than how it was back in the Atari days, there's never been a better time to do it. Adapting Doctor Who into a video game has always presented some fairly major challenges however, given that he has such a non-violent approach to conflict resolution.
Sean Millard explains the problems:“Traditionally game design is all about progressing a character through a map of a world, putting obstacles in their way and letting the player figure out how to get past these obstacles. Normally we’d do that with locked door and barriers but the Doctor has his Sonic Screwdriver, which is essentially a skeleton key that he can use to unlock any door, which becomes a significant pain in the game design rear. Charles and I had to think very creatively about how we’d use the Sonic Screwdriver and block and unblock progression in the game.”
Charles Cecil wades in at this point:“Originally we were going to have the Sonic Screwdriver lost at the very beginning, but the BBC turned around and said ‘No’, so that was the end of that idea.”
Millard continues:“Another big problem is, usually in character-led video games with good guys and bad guys, we tend to rely on cannons, laser guns and light swords and the Doctor increasingly solves all the problems of the Universe and saves humanity with the power of negotiation and sensible talk, which isn’t a great game mechanic either.”
“We had to really look at how we wanted to deal with Daleks and Cybermen in a non-combative way. We came to the conclusion that stealth and avoidance and interaction with lots of world obstacles was the best solution and it’s turned out quite well.”
Stealth and problem solving have their own challenges to overcome in order to keep a game fresh and with the Doctor Who episodes, the games need to be able to keep pace with the TV episodes. Cecil continues:“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, it is an adventure game in that sense but it isn’t one where you’re stopped in your tracks and you sit and think for hours. We wanted to keep the pacing much closer to the TV series and hopefully the challenges are exciting and interesting enough to give you a reward without stopping you for hours on end.”
“As Ian said the demographic for the telly series is six to 60 and normally at Sumo our demographic spans about eight to 10 years and to try and design a game that’s going to be accessible to a six year-old as well as grandma and still have gamers get it and enjoy it is the real challenge,”Millard enthuses.
Cecil expands:“We have the casual audience at one end and the hardcore at the other. While the hardcore will get and enjoy the simpler games the casual gamers won’t touch the hardcore games. We’re sitting somewhere in between that and it’s actually quite easy to do as long as you put in the elements that attract the hardcore without sort of using the ‘grammar’ associated with the hardcore games. If you pitch it without using the hardcore grammar then you can encompass everyone and that has been our objective.”
“The golden moment for us,”adds Millard,“is when a whole family is sitting around the computer with one controlling and the others are trying to solve the puzzles and they’re all shouting across each other’s shoulders. That’s how we really want the game to be played – a proper family affair - and that’s really what we’ve been aiming for.”
It’s a pretty heart-warming image and again, it seems that Doctor Who is the perfect IP to make Millard and Cecil's dream a reality. The talk moves on to the creative freedom that games offer over television and Phil Ford joins in at this point.
“The great thing about the game is that you can go to places that you would never be able to go to with the TV show,”he says.“It would be prohibitively expensive to develop the City of the Daleks for TV in the way we do in the first episode. You have this horrendously expensive planet, which would be horrendously expensive to build for TV, even using CG.”
“You have this huge freedom. The great thing about all of the interactive adventures is that you go to all these great locations that we would never be able to on the telly. You can do all these great things like move into TARDIS and you probably get to see it in far greater detail than you would on the TV show because you have the freedom to explore it for yourselves.”
Cecil drops in to focus a little bit more on the first episode and the development of the Dalek home world of Skaro and their main city Kaalann.“When you (Phil Ford) wrote about Skaro we had the opportunity to research what Skaro looked like, apart from Tom Baker where you have a land of mist and rocks, it’s always been fairly vague what it actually looked like. We asked what it looked like and the only answer we got was ‘brutal’, and that was it. Our job was then to sit down and create what visions that these people have had. Because the concept artists created matte paintings from the ideas we’ve had, you can see these paintings through the windows in the game as a backdrop. We’ve been immensely privileged to actually sit down and create that from the minds that originally envisioned it in creating the TV show.”
Millard adds almost wondrously:“In almost 40 years nobody’s managed to nail that down and we’re the ones that are going to be able to do it. That’s brilliant.”
Tweedale comes in again and is very eager to stress, these are not just episodes about Doctor Who, they are Doctor Who. To that extent the BBC has drafted in the TV series writers, Phil Ford and James Moran, in order to ensure that there is a narrative coherence between the games and the TV series.
The reality of it is that it’s not just the series writers that have contributed to the game but everyone from Matt Smith and Karen Gillan (the current Doctor and is new partner Amy Pond) all the way through to the BBC’s art department have contributed to the game in order to retain maximum authenticity. The result, from what we saw earlier in the day, is that Sumo and the BBC have created a very special and unique series of games that could really spark a change in the way people perceive and consume games.
To round off the session we wanted to ask the really difficult question and we asked why the BBC chose Sumo to deal with the Doctor Who games. Tweedale gave the answer quite coolly:“There was really two reasons why we chose Sumo over the other 12 companies that tendered for the games. A lot of people think that they really understand Doctor Who but don’t really. Sumo really showed that they understood Doctor Who and really demonstrated a passion for it. The other thing was bit of technology, a bit of portal software that allowed you to enter the TARDIS and have it be instantly massive on the inside.”
Of course we had to ask Charles and Sean why they wanted to be involved in the Doctor Who game. Charles was quite emphatic:“The ability to design puzzles with these incredibly iconic monsters that terrified us as children was extraordinary. To actually be part of that folklore, to create new environments and monsters that may come back in to the telly series and have the telly series in some ways mould itself around the game was an incredible privilege.”
Sean Millard, in the end, said it best about Sumo’s desire to get involved and about Doctor Who as a whole:“Those two words ‘Doctor Who’. Who wouldn’t want to be involved? We’re all fans and when we said that we were doing the game everyone at the studio was fighting each other to be involved. It’s a passion thing. It’s so animated behind the scenes and that’s why Doctor Who is what is.”