In May 2002, the BBC aired the premiere of its new spy drama series, Spooks. Centred on the activities of British MI5 agents, it has been described as “a cross between a dumbed-down version of the X-Files and 24 on fast-forward” and “pure hokum, and none the worse for that,” (curiously, the last description was made by the BBC itself). This would not normally be of much interest apart from the fact that it is seeking to emulate the success of Microsoft’s AI web marketing campaign by running an interactive online game alongside the TV series.
Run by the Fictionlab department of the BBC, the game will involve players sifting through clues on an MI5 ‘extranet’ website among others, and of course watching the TV show to pick up additional hints. It will take place in real time – although in practice what this means remains to be seen – and will last for seven weeks.
It all sounds very innovative, but in fact this very format has been tried in America by ABC’s spy drama series, Alias, which started in November 2001. The game had a particularly low profile and did not seem to generate anywhere near the excitement or publicity of the AI game; there could be any number of reasons for this, including lack of scope, an insufficiently involving storyline and lack of resources.
Despite this failure, it is at least superficially easy to see how massively multiuser online entertainment (mmoe) might serve as a good accompaniment to a TV series, particularly those series that will interest the more affluent and web-aware viewers (such as spy drama series). By providing additional online entertainment that requires players to watch the TV series, you could conceivably increase audience retention rates and also capture new viewers. This is of course dependent on how good the mmoe is.
The Three Sides of MMOE-TV
The only successful implementation of an mmoe so far has been Microsoft’s AI web marketing campaign, which arguably was not tied into the AI film at all, aside from sharing a few characters and settings. Certainly there was no hint of the movie plot in the game, which started several months before the premiere, and there was no requirement to see the movie in order to progress within the game. As such, the AI game was remarkably abstracted from the movie it was supposed to be marketing. Perhaps this is good practice for mmoe-movies, but it does not necessarily translate to being good practice for mmoe-TV.
There are a few fundamental differences between movies and TV series which drastically alter the possibilities available for mmoe-TV. Movies are singular events; TV series are not. The storyline of movies is immutable and must be defined over a year before its release date; TV series can afford to be more flexible. The audience for movies is far larger than that of TV series (and consequently production costs are higher), but this also means that the proportion of the audience that can be expected to be able to take part in an mmoe is far higher for targeted TV series than for movies.
So whereas mmoe-movies cannot interact with the content of the movie in a true two way relationship (the movie will always take precedence over the mmoe) and there can be no direct and significant incentive for mmoe players to see the associated movie (how many clues can you fit in a movie? and how likely is it that the quality of the mmoe will have any bearing on the movie, given that they will be written and produced by completely different teams?), neither of these points are true for mmoe-TV. Instead of only one possible relationship between an mmoe and a movie (listed below) there are three for an mmoe and a TV series.
MOVIE: One way, transparent
The movie script is typically finalised before the start of the mmoe, which hence has no visible impact on it; clues for the mmoe may be present in the movie, but not in any way perceptible to audience unaware of the mmoe’s existence. Actions of the players or producers of the mmoe in real time can have no effect on the movie as the mmoe typically takes place in the months leading up to the movie’s release. Essentially, all information flow is one way, from the movie to the mmoe, in that the storyline, plot, characters and setting of the mmoe are all dependent on the movie, and not vice versa. The impact of the mmoe on the movie is completely transparent, as only an insignificant fraction of the audience can be expected to follow the mmoe.
This may change in the future, but not for the next few years.
TV: One way
This type of mmoe largely mimics that of the one way, transparent movie mmoe. The actions of the mmoe in real time do not affect the TV series whatsoever; any link that the TV series has to the mmoe exists in transparent clues which are fully determined before the start of either the mmoe or the TV series (of course, there may be no clues in the series at all). The TV series script is typically finalised before the start of the mmoe. It may be useful or even necessary for mmoe players to refer to the TV series to obtain clues, but as has been shown with the AI game, all it takes is one person to watch the show and record the clues.
This type of one way mmoe-TV could be potentially damaging to the flow of the mmoe. If clues or events that are necessary to the progress of the mmoe are hard-coded into the TV series (from a shortsighted wish to make mmoe players watch the show), the mmoe and players will not be allowed to proceed at their own natural pace, but will instead have a pace dictated upon them. Interestingly, this is not a problem for a one-way movie since it is a singular event and it operates independently.
TV: Two way, transparent
The actions and events of the mmoe in real time do have an impact on the TV series, but only in a transparent manner. This means that viewers of the TV series still need not be aware of the mmoe in order to understand and enjoy the show. Advantages for the mmoe are numerous; there is no longer any hard-coding of clues into the show, as they can be moved about and altered according to the needs of the mmoe. Consequently they can be more specific and complex. Players and groups within the mmoe will be able to receive credit for puzzles they have solved, even if it is only a casual mention by a show character.
The challenges for the producers of the show and mmoe are of course significantly increased. While this type of mmoe-TV will not necessitate a completely combined production and writing team for both the show and mmoe, it will require excellent communication. While the show’s script can for the most part be defined in advance of the mmoe’s start date (remember, the mmoe’s influence is transparent – it cannot affect the plot or storyline of the show), the show will have to be filmed (or at least, ‘in the can’) only a week or two in advance of initial air date in order to keep the newly inserted mmoe clues up to date. This means the mmoe producers will still have to predict the progress of the mmoe players and tailor their clues accordingly, but their accuracy will be far higher than that of the completely pre-determined clues in one way mmoe-TV.
The rewards for the show will be significant; players will watch every show to see if they are credited, and viewers of the show may be sufficiently interested to take part in the mmoe.
TV: Two way, significant
This is the most challenging type of mmoe-TV. Unlike two way, transparent mmoe-TV, this will require a radical rethink in the production of both the show and the mmoe. The difference here is that the actions and events of the mmoe in real time can significantly affect the TV series such that its plot and script are changed. Viewers of the show will be aware that ‘something’ is happening in between shows and so will have to be aware of the mmoe’s existence.
As a result of this ‘true’ real time interaction, the production and writing team for the show and mmoe must be fully integrated to quickly respond to plot changes and script rewrites. Shows will be �in the can� at least a week before air date so their content does not expire too quickly. Maintaining high script and acting quality is extremely difficult in current topical shows, and will be even more so when they have to react to the often unpredictable behaviour of the mmoe.
It is really up to the producers of the show as to the degree of steering they want to exert on the mmoe to keep it to a certain predetermined plot line (AI game) thus reducing script uncertainty and possibly keeping the quality level high; after all, the mmoe players can only have as much freedom as the producers give them.
Rewards for all parties concerned could potentially be huge; players would all watch the show as it is an essential part of the mmoe. Viewers of the show would either have to play the mmoe or at least view some kind of ‘This Week on X’s mmoe’ refresher show or email (who knows, they might like it). It would be a completely novel experience, creating an incredibly rich interactive narrative. Alternatively, it could completely fail. Much more risky than two way, transparent mmoe-TV.
Back to reality
Spooks is typical one way mmoe-TV, insofar as it can be called ‘typical’ when it is only the second ever attempt of this kind of mmoe. It is hardly surprising that the BBC took such a conservative approach as this, effectively bolting on an mmoe to an already produced TV series, since the success of mmoes is as yet unproven. Many people cite the Microsoft AI game as a success, and indeed it was critically acclaimed by the New York Times, CNN and the BBC. Yet it this success enough when the movie cost $100 million, and only took in $79 million?
Ultimately, mmoes will have to pay for themselves, directly or indirectly. The producers of the Spooks mmoe have set their own high target of 200,000 players; if it reaches that mark, it can be judged a success. Whether or not this is a realistic goal can be determined by estimating the amount of players it should be able to attract based on the resources they have available.
For comparison, the AI game cost ‘well below $1 million’ and attracted an average of 4 million hits per day, peaking at 25 million per day. Exactly what this translates to in terms of player numbers (the question of what a player constitutes in an mmoe is still unanswered) is uncertain, but estimates of several hundred thousand players are not out of the question. While Microsoft did not actively collect demographic information, it is known that around 50% of new players towards the end of the game were female, and the average player age was young adult – these are extremely attractive figures.
According to the producers of the Spooks mmoe, the funding they have is ‘a fraction of the amount needed to film one episode.’ Based on the cost per hour of similar BBC drama series, this means they have a fraction of �600-700,000 ($1 million). It is impossible to say what ‘a fraction’ is supposed to be – anything between £100,000 to £300,000 would seem reasonable though. This would seem to be perhaps a third less than Microsoft had, so all things being equal, the Spooks mmoe should easily expect to attract 100,000 players.
Unfortunately, all things are not equal. It takes time for an mmoe to build up momentum and the Spooks mmoe will only be running for seven weeks. Seven weeks after the Microsoft AI game started, the Cloudmakers fan group was less than half its peak size. Furthermore, the mmoe is not aimed at Americans, who constituted 60% of the total Microsoft AI players. Bearing this in mind, a goal of 200,000 players is overambitious for a project which in reality is merely a proof of concept for the BBC.
Further comparison can be made with an independent international fan-created mmoe called Lockjaw. While it is hard to estimate costs for Lockjaw as the producers are all volunteers, based on total hours spent, the project has cost approximately $200-300,000 over a year, of which only $2500 were hardware costs. Player numbers could vary from 2000 to 20,000 (accurate figures are not available). These figures suggest that given proper assistance and equipment, the Lockjaw producers could make an mmoe which would be at least as cost-effective as Microsoft’s AI game. As usual it seems that the determining factor for the success of an mmoe lies mainly in expertise, not funding.
Mmoe-TV holds great promise, but two barriers must be overcome before it can be executed on a wide scale; a successful proof of concept, and a change in mindset for TV producers and scriptwriters. As yet, no mmoes have experienced true success, and there have been no large scale trials of mmoe-TV, but both are in the process of being remedied. As for TV producers, they will have to alter the way in which they treat mmoes. Currently, a TV series is first produced and often finalised at the script level, and then an mmoe is bolted on as an afterthought. This does not give enough time for the mmoe producers to prepare, and it precludes any kind of two way interaction, which I believe is highly desirable for a mmoe-TV.
My dream mmoe-TV series would be two way transparent/significant. A style similar to that of Fox’s 24 would be ideal, with the impact of the mmoe in real time increasingly affecting the TV series; thus, at the start of the series, the mmoe has minimal and transparent impact. Towards the end of the series, the impact increases and perhaps the last episode could even be filmed live to immediately respond to mmoe events. Early episodes of the series could be filmed well in advance, since the mmoe’s flow is unlikely to deviate too much from the plan, but as the series goes on, the time between the film date and air date of episodes would shrink to accommodate the actions and events within the mmoe. It would be a great way to build up a huge mmoe audience.
According to Elan Lee, the chief designer of Microsoft’s AI game, “Movie promoters and TV promoters are dying to fund stuff like this. Especially TV promoters. They’re itching to cross over into this new media, and that provides a lot of opportunity.” Promotion of a TV series through an mmoe could work well, but the true rewards await those who are confident enough to treat mmoes not simply as a tool but as an integral part of a TV series.
BBC (2002). The Spooks website.
Deans, J (2002). BBC plays I-spy with Spooks site (Guardian).
Fox (2001). Alias website.
Kennedy, L (2002). Spielberg in the Twilight Zone (Wired Magazine, AI box office figures).
Watson-Smyth, K (2002). Spies Like Us (Guardian Online, “We are looking at around 200,000 players, the maximum we could deal with happily. More than that would be rather scary,” and “It was expensive for a one-off but it was a fraction of the amount needed to film one episode of Spooks.”)
New York Times (2001). Online game said to be better than movie it promotes (“[Microsoft] would not disclose how much the game cost, but Lee said it was well below US$1 million.”)
Saunders, C (2001). The All-Encompassing Marketing Experience (AI player numbers).
Lee, E (2002). What Not To Do (Lecture transcript: AI game demographics, “Movie promoters, TV promoters are dying to fund stuff like this. ESPECIALLY TV promoters. They’re itching to cross over into this new media, and that provides a lot of opportunity.).
Wells, M (2001). �3m puts Del Boy back on screen (Guardian, BBC drama series costs per hour).
Personal communication with Lockjaw producers (2002). Lockjaw game statistics (figures are rough estimates due to lack of accurate information).