Ninja’s Fortnite tournament, a fascinating mix of streaming, participation, $75 paid entry, and prizes ($2500 if you kill him, $2500 if you win a game), reminds me of what broadcasters like the BBC were trying to do in the 2000s. Back then, the tech and logistics for ‘massive’ games was too expensive, but it’s finally here now.

Update: It was a joke, haha

The creators of Westworld are asking Reddit whether they should release the entire plot of Season 2 in advance, to prevent fan theories from spoiling the plot:

Many thanks for your great questions and thoughts. As I’ve said before, I’ve been a member of the reddit community for years (no I’m not going to share my original username…). And I greatly enjoyed watching the friendly folks at this subreddit guess the twists and turns of the season.

It creates a larger problem for us, though, in terms of the way your guesswork is reported online. ‘Theories’ can actually be spoilers, and the line between the two is confusing. It’s something we’ve been thinking about since last season. The fans of Game of Thrones, for instance, rallied around and protected the secrets of the narrative in part because they already knew those secrets (through season 5).

We thought about this long and hard, and came to a difficult (and potentially highly controversial) decision. If [the Reddit community] agrees, we’re going to post a video that lays out the plot (and twists and turns) of season 2. Everything. The whole sordid thing. Up front. That way the members of the community here who want the season spoiled for them can watch ahead, and then protect the rest of the community, and help to distinguish between what’s ‘theory’ and what’s spoiler.

It’s a new age, and a new world in terms of the relationship between the folks making shows and the community watching them. And trust is a big part of that. We’ve made our cast part of this decision, and they’re fully supportive. We’re so excited to be in this with you guys together. So if this post reaches a 1000 upvotes we’ll deliver the goods.

At the time of writing, the post had 181 upvotes.

Once Upon a Time in the Westworld

No-one watches Game of Thrones and thinks, “this show describes my life perfectly.” It may contain plenty of themes and imagery that ring true today, about lust for power and the pitiless brutality of war — it may be fantastic storytelling — but unlike drama set in the ‘real’ world of doctors and policewomen and unemployed people, it’s a harder jump to put yourself in the place of characters who shoe horses or chop people’s heads off for a living.

As a science fiction drama set at an indeterminate point in the future, Westworld is slightly more ‘real’ than Game of Thrones, but the premise is arguably more ridiculous — a theme park set in the Old West, filled with robots that guests pay to have sex with and kill. We all know how that story ends, don’t we?

But by the end of the second episode, Westworld felt more relevant to my life than almost anything else I’ve watched recently. Why?

Because it’s one of the first shows to take videogames seriously. Yes, it’s also about humanity’s relationship and responsibility towards its creations — but when you see characters talking about finding hidden levels, and employees frustrated about designing new quests with exquisitely-modelled robot actors, you don’t need a PhD to understand what they’re talking about.

To a certain set of people, videogames still mean Super Mario and Space Invaders, Call of Duty and Candy Crush. So when these people depict videogames in fiction, they get flattened out into mindless gore-laden cariactures or hyper-addictive puzzle games. There isn’t much interesting to say about those games, other than in a Black Mirror-ish “the future is terrible, and so are we” way.

But there are other games out there, role-playing games where you can explore enormous worlds for hundreds of hours, becoming a knight or a criminal or, yes, a cowboy, helping or hindering hundreds of non-player characters (NPCs) in countless quests. They aren’t ‘better’ than Tetris, but they’re very different.

And it’s these role-playing games that Westworld is so familiar with and evidently very skeptical of, even as they crib them for material. There’s one scene in the second episode where a man is introducing his friend to the world, and they’re flagged down by a town inhabitant who robotically recites his lines about a hidden treasure. The man drags his friend away, performing the equivalent of hammering “X” on a controller to skip through a story cutscene, impatient to get to the good bits — and that’s not even the most obvious example of their dislike for canned gaming dialogue.

Canned dialogue or not, it’s what visitors pay $40,000 per night for. “We sell complete immersion in 100 interconnected narratives. A Relentless! Fucking! Experience!” shouts one game designer, a little defensively. Westworld is not merely about shooting people or having sex or even about the incredible environment — it’s not about mindless thrills, it’s about placing visitors into the heart of their own, tailor-made adventure where they can become the (anti)hero. It’s about the story.

Oh, what sweet words to my ears.

Once upon a time, my actual job was Alternate Reality Game Designer. For three years, I was lead designer of a fictional world that blended straight into our own world. Tens of thousands of paying players would receive emails to their personal accounts, phone calls on their mobile, and letters in the mail. They’d discover adverts laden with clues in the newspaper, and when they’d meet with other players, one might escape onto a literal black helicopter when uncovered as an in-game mole.

It was a thrilling and incredibly stressful experience to create a world that was always ‘on’, but that’s what we were selling; unlike practically every other ARG to date, we weren’t advertising movies or cars or jeans. We were selling a standalone experience, one that aspired to provide complete immersion in interconnected narratives but — of course — wasn’t quite as immersive as Westworld.

I don’t pretend that Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have ARGs foremost in their minds when writing Westworld. They were probably more interested in epic role-playing games and massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto or The Witcher 3. But I like to think that ARGs are closer in reality to what they’ve created. It’s only in ARGs that you physically step into a fictional world for days on end; it’s only ARGs that have attempted to blend real world storytelling and gameplay. So yes, I feel a frisson of delight as I watch the first show that reflects my job. I can imagine the millions of role-playing gamers gradually ageing into their 30s and 40s — a prime HBO subscriber demographic — feel just the same way.

It’s far too early to tell how much Westworld can tell us about our relationship with videogames. Stray too far from how a ‘real’ Westworld might work and the story loses its power to tell us about our own world. Even by the end of the second episode, you’re left wondering how, precisely, the theme park prevents players from accidentally stabbing each other, or from constantly breaking character and irritating other players keen to immerse themselves in the fiction.

But adhering too closely to gaming verisimilitude can produce an overly cautious and mechanical story. Even as a gaming and technology enthusiast, I have little interest in Westworld exploring the minutiae of experience points and AR field of vision.

Judging by its first two hours, I remain hopeful that Westworld will continue to address videogames. It’s a rich, untapped narrative vein to mine: what people will do to win, the seductive attraction of repetitive actions that make us feel like we’ve accomplished something, our desire for a world that we can master and yet can still surprise us.

In the mean time, I have too many silly ideas for Westworld writing projects. Here are just a few:

  • Diary of a Westworld game designer
  • How I’d design a Westworld fan ARG
  • Westworld Patch Notes
  • Westworld Metacritic Reviews

Pride and High-Definition Prejudice

Here’s the sort of TV I watched in 1995: Red Dwarf, Star Trek: DS9, Star Trek: Voyager, Babylon 5, The X-Files – and Pride and Prejudice. I can’t recall how I was convinced to watch a costume drama based on a book genre that I had never previously shown an iota of interest in, but I’m pretty sure my mum had something to do with it. I was also prevailed upon to make a special batch of popcorn for the occasion using a US-imported popcorn maker I received as a birthday/Christmas present (one which I recently discovered is no longer available for sale on account of it potentially burning down houses due to the predictably unpleasant combination of hot metal, oil, and plastic).

Of course, I was enthralled – how couldn’t you be, with that plot, that cast, that writing? Sadly, the other boys at my all-male school were not into the Austen and so I kept my mouth shut about it for, oh, nine years, when I discovered the BBC series on Amazon Prime Video. Even better, it was in high-definition!

According to Wikipedia:

A high-definition transfer was produced from the original negatives and released as a Blu-ray in October 2008. The HD version has not been broadcast on television, the BBC refuses to broadcast anything shot in 16mm in HD. The same restored version was released on DVD in March 2009. The Blu-ray was released on April 14, 2009.

There is no citation for the claim that “the BBC refuses to broadcast anything shot in 16mm in HD,” but I’m not surprised by the decision; while many outdoor and well-lit shots in the series look perfectly lovely in HD, the noticeable grain and poor colour balance in most indoor shots is quite distracting. What’s more, the series obviously wasn’t produced with HD in mind, resulting in the actors’ make-up often looking a bit off.

Still, it’s well worth a watch if you enjoyed the original back in 1995, or indeed, have never seen it. You may want to wait another year though, as I’d be astonished if the BBC didn’t try to properly remaster the series for its twentieth anniversary in 2015.


When are you allowed to pirate something?

These days, I rarely pirate anything at all. I subscribe to Spotify and Amazon Prime, and I pay the BBC TV Licence Fee. I buy all my books, apps, and games from Apple and Amazon; these are all unimaginably affordable compared to just a couple of decades ago, when a Nintendo 64 game easily cost £80/$130 in today’s money.

I usually see movies at the cinema but will occasionally buy blurays if it’s something special (plus I get screeners from BAFTA); and because I don’t watch much TV any more, I can get by with intermittent subscriptions to Netflix for the purposes of binge-watching Parks and Rec or similar.

That leaves one major exception: US TV shows that aren’t on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video. I believe the only way of legally watching shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, The Flash, True Detective, etc., in a timely fashion in the UK is by subscribing to Sky, who have bought up the rights to the most popular US shows. Sky is not cheap, especially if you’re only using it to watch literally one or two series a week.

In the absence of any way to buy the episodes outright via Apple or Amazon, I download a couple of shows a week. To assuage my guilt, I try to buy the shows when they finally go on sale in the UK. I suppose I could be more patient and just wait, but we live in a global village these days and I like to understand what my friends in the US are talking about when it comes to popular culture.

Things were different when I was a teenager and at university. There was no Spotify or Netflix, no Amazon Prime or iTunes TV Store. I also didn’t have much money. Accordingly, I pirated pretty much everything other than apps and games, which were a hassle to deal with.

Most of the stuff was poor quality such I’ve since deleted the files or obtained legal copies; but that doesn’t fix everything. I don’t regard piracy as a particularly bad sin – digital content is non-rivalrous and so the concept of ‘theft’ doesn’t apply – but I do think it shows wilful ignorance at best, and contempt at worst, towards artists.

In the olden days (90s and 2000s), you could attempt to justify piracy by claiming – somewhat truthfully – that only a tiny percentage of the sale price actually made it back to the artist. Putting aside the way this devalues the contribution of all the non-artists involved and the fact that even a tiny percentage is better than zero, the fact is that marketplaces like Steam, iTunes, and Amazon provide many artists with substantially higher cuts, from 35% to 70% and beyond. It’s much less palatable to advocate piracy when there’s no question you’re harming the artist financially.

The other argument was that a lot of desirable content was DRMed or not available in certain regions or on certain platforms. That is still the case for a few things including my beloved TV shows, but it’s much less common. As for DRM, it’s effectively vanished from purchased music, and the rise of tightly-integrated digital ecosystems owned by Apple, Amazon, and Google has taken the sting out of DRMed apps and video, for better or worse. I don’t like books being DRMed, but that’s not a good enough excuse for me to not buy them. Having said that, I feel absolutely no guilt in downloading un-DRMed versions of content I’ve already bought – not for sending to friends, but for consuming on incompatible ecosystems.

Today, I atone for the piratical sins of my youth by supporting new artists on Kickstarter. Every single penny counts when you’re starting out, so I like to pay things forward.

Update: @simonth reminds me that Agents of SHIELD is on Channel 4, albeit a few episodes behind.

10 apps the BBC should make

Over the years, the BBC — which started as a radio service — has chosen to move into new, risky platforms including television, home computing, and the internet. It’s safe to say that we’re all quite happy with how those ventures turned out, so my question is, why stop there? The BBC should raise its digital ambitions to create original interactive experiences for computers, smartphones, and tablets; experiences that inform, educate, and entertain.

I am specifically not talking about apps that distribute or repurpose existing content. While the iPlayer apps for TV and radio are very successful, they don’t involve the creation of new interactive content.


Nor am I talking about websites such as the new educational iWonder brand. iWonder is a very well-written and very nicely designed website and it has some excellent articles, but it is not fundamentally interactive.


So what am I talking about? I can best explain with ten examples of genuinely interactive apps that would complement existing BBC TV shows and properties (because, you know, it’s all about brand synergy), and are provably feasible and popular.

1. BBC News = BBC News

BBC News app

Credit where credit is due: the BBC News app is a simple yet decent extension of the BBC News Online website, itself an exceptional BBC property due to its world-leading, online-only nature. It’s arguable that it’s not a particularly interactive app, but then again, I don’t think that making it more interactive would add much.

2. The Sky at Night/Stargazing Live = Star Walk


Thanks to presenters like Brian Cox and shows like Stargazing Live, there are plenty of people interested in stargazing and astronomy, but do we really expect them to go outside and fumble around with a compass when they could use something much better – like Star Walk? Want to find Jupiter or identify a constellation? Just point your smartphone in the right direction. It’s augmented reality of the finest kind, providing a supremely accessible and highly educational experience. If you combined Star Walk with audio or video commentary, you could provide viewers with a new stargazing tour every week. Perhaps you could even crowdsource counts of Leonids and Perseids meteor showers. Continue reading “10 apps the BBC should make”

We don’t need your permission any more

One of the most annoying things in life is asking for permission: permission to build an extension, permission to volunteer at a school, permission to start a business. It’s always irritating to imagine some distant bureaucrat with little interest or understanding of your life in control of your fate.

Almost every sphere of life and work – from education to science to media to retail – involves us asking for permission every time we want make or do anything, whether it’s to start a project, raise funding or get access to the market. The ‘permission system’ suffocates creativity, but it’s so pervasive that we can hardly imagine a different world. Yet it’s finally being dismantled, brick by brick, by the internet, and we’re all going to benefit.

Imagine you’re a bright young filmmaker with a brilliant idea for a new documentary. When you approach a broadcaster, you find that they’re only concentrating on five subject areas this year, so you change your idea accordingly. After some emails, you finally get to pitch your idea to a commissioner who tells you that they’re already making a similar show, so you’ll either have to wait a year or change it drastically. You opt to change it, trying to ignore the feeling that this is a mistake.

Now the commissioner likes your idea, but they’ll have to check what channel controller thinks. A week passes, and unfortunately it seems that your idea doesn’t fit within the channel’s strategic priorities, but you should definitely try again.

After a few rounds of this, you become good at guessing what commissioners will like, and following some dedicated networking, you discover what the channel priorities really are. You learn how to craft ideas that will have the right mix of buzz and relevancy and risk, and you’re rewarded with commissions. In short, you’ve become an expert at creating mediocre ideas to order.

I don’t mean to be hard on the TV industry. The few commissioners that I know are all good people who want to do a good job. But when you’re bombarded by dozens of ideas a week and you always need to get permission from your bosses, it’s safer to stick with tried and tested idea than taking a risk – after all, they don’t want to get fired.

The same story applies to every other industry where the cost of production has been high and the amount of ‘shelf space’ has been limited, whether for books or clothes or computer programmes. Back in the days where it used to cost a lot more to print a book or manufacture a new product and you could only fit so many into a shop, it made sense to be cautious and ensure that investments were made carefully; and since there were fewer people coming up with ideas, the ‘permission bottlenecks’ were also less of a problem.

But the world has changed. With new technology, the cost of producing consumer goods has plummeted; with the internet, we have unlimited shelf space; and with better education, we have billions of people who are capable of coming up with good ideas. Continue reading “We don’t need your permission any more”

The Death of the BBC

…and the Case for Public Service Games

The BBC is a world-class broadcaster that produces some of the very best TV, radio and news. It’s also an organisation that is desperately holding on to its past glories, while ignoring the potential and importance of the internet.

What is the BBC for? According to its Royal Charter, the BBC’s purpose is to create and distribute content that will “inform, educate, and entertain,’ – content that would not exist without a broadcaster that is publicly funded by a compulsory TV licence fee. As the Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, said recently:

The BBC exists to deliver […] programmes and content of real quality and value. Content that deepens understanding, changes attitudes, makes people encounter the world with new eyes and new ears. Content – news, music, drama, documentary – which would not be made and which they would never enjoy if the BBC did not exist.

Look around you. Look at commercial media both here and around the world. Is it possible in 2009 to believe that – with all its undoubted shortcomings – if you took the BBC away you would end up with anything other than a big black cultural hole?

The BBC’s mission is truly noble. It spends millions spent on science and nature documentaries that are the envy of the world, thoughtful examinations on history and politics, daring and challenging dramas, news that strives to be fair and impartial, and unabashedly intelligent radio and music. If you took the BBC away, there really would be a cultural gap because I really doubt that the commercial sector would take up the mantle.

But, of course, that’s not all what the BBC does. It also spends hundreds of millions on game shows, soap operas, dramas, chat shows, pop music, and light entertainment – genres that are served reasonably well by the commercial sector. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this, providing that the BBC’s programmes were somehow better or different than those on ITV, Channel 4, or Sky; but they’re not. Eastenders, Spooks, and Strictly Come Dancing may be great shows, but they’re not unique or distinctive when compared to Coronation Street, Primeval, and the X-Factor on ITV.

As it happens, most people seem perfectly fine with the current state of affairs, and they don’t care if the commercial sector is harmed by the BBC. To most, the BBC provides good value for money – it gives them a decent selection of shows that they watch regularly – some of which really are unique and ‘public service’, others which are simply entertaining – and they neither think nor care that this is unfair.

Nevertheless, the fact that the BBC openly competes with the commercial sector when it isn’t supposed to is a contradiction that has severe consequences. This contradiction is a legacy from when it was very expensive and difficult to make TV, and there were technical limits to the number of channels that could be broadcast; under those circumstances, it made sense to have the BBC create a wide range of programmes. But now that it’s easier to make TV and we have more or less unlimited channels via digital TV and the internet, the BBC’s production of decidedly ‘competitive’ TV and radio programmes seems less justifiable but somehow excusable given that it’s been doing so for the past several decades.

And so, we love the BBC for its documentaries and its worthy cultural content, and we ignore the fact that many show we enjoy, like The Weakest Link and Eastenders, are in fact perfectly possible outside of the BBC. Given popular sentiment, the BBC is not likely to stop making game shows and soap operas, so there’s nothing to worry about there.*

(*Except for the problem of the high salaries being paid to top performers like Jonathan Ross, which continues to draw negative attention from the media and the government. We’re outraged that a publicly-funded organisation is paying such a high salary to anyone, but it’s mainly because the BBC is competing with the commercial sector, and in the commercial sector, salaries can reach into the millions).

Putting aside the BBC’s anti-competitiveness for a moment, there are two other big problems.

The first is the issue of the TV licence fee and its murky future in a digital world. The second is the fear and lack of understanding the BBC’s upper echelons have of the rapid shift in audience attention to interactive forms of media and entertainment; that is, games. Continue reading “The Death of the BBC”

Spooks: Code 9 – They Got it Backwards


Note: I am not about to reveal any secrets about Spooks: Code 9 or its production. A dedicated fan of Spooks could have written this, and while I’m not one, I did spend a lot of time thinking about, and watching, the show. These are my own opinions, and not that of Six to Start.

Last year, I worked on the online extension of a BBC 3 TV series called Spooks: Code 9. When I tell people this, they’re often excited and impressed when they hear the word ‘Spooks‘, and I have to explain that it wasn’t the long-running BBC 1 spy thriller that many know and love, but a spin-off.

Except Spooks: Code 9 (SC9) wasn’t a spin-off of Spooks. It was set in 2013, a year after a nuclear bomb had blown up London, and there was no continuity of events or characters from the original series (set during the present day). The only thing in common it had with Spooks is that it involved MI5 and it shares the same name (originally, it was just going to be called ‘Liberty’).

It’s easy to understand why SC9 was made; the BBC had a successful and popular thriller in Spooks, and the production company, Kudos, was clearly smart and reliable (they’d also made the excellent Life on Mars). Why not try and extend the formula to the younger end of the market? After all, the CSI brand had two spin-offs, so who’d begrudge the BBC just one?

But it wasn’t that simple. As the show neared launch, ‘Spooks’ was tacked on to the name, and ‘Liberty’ turned into the impenetrable ‘Code 9’, which meant absolutely nothing except for being a codeword in the show. Tying the show to the Spooks brand was a risky move – it helped raise its profile and increased the chance that fans of the original series would tune in, but it also set the expectation that it would be just like (or at least, similar to) Spooks. This was bad, for two reasons.

The first was that the show clearly wasn’t like Spooks – it was aimed at a far younger audience, and so it had younger characters and younger themes; anyone expecting the sort of characters and interactions from the original, decidedly middle-aged, series, would be disappointed. Secondly, anyone who didn’t like Spooks but might have tuned in to a younger, edgier show might now be turned off because they’d think that – yes – it’d just be like Spooks.

So what happened? Firstly, many criticisms of SC9 mentioned the fact that it wasn’t Spooks – and it got worse:

Spooks Code 9 is an utterly cynical venture and a damning indictment of the lack of imagination at work in commissioning new drama … Moreover, given its patronising awfulness, SC9 actually damages the Spooks brand. And that’s what it’s about – the brand.

The unthinkable had happened – the branding plan had backfired and SC9 was now dragging the golden goose down with it! Sadly, I think that if SC9 had a different name (i.e. not Spooks), everyone would have given the show more of a chance.

Not that that would’ve helped much, because regardless of it was called, SC9 was bad. Really bad. I couldn’t find a single positive review of the first episode, and believe me, I looked; reviewers criticised the script, the absence of anyone over 40, and the show’s consistent focus on the youth market through various club scenes, drinking, and romantic angst. What should have been the opening to an intriguing and exciting new world had emerged as a bland show that used tired tropes, like newsreel montages and all six main characters explaining why they thought they should become a secret agent.

After the first two episodes, which were shown back-to-back and were equally painful to watch, the audience numbers plummeted. Ep1 had 810k viewers, Ep 2 had 703k viewers – and Ep3 had 447k viewers. In a week, the show had lost almost half of its audience. By the sixth and final episode, SC9 had a mere 245k viewers.

I thought this was very sad, and not just because we were making the online extension. Episode 4 wasn’t bad, Episode 5 was pretty decent, and Episode 6 was really quite entertaining. In fact, the first minutes of the finale are captivating.

We open with a man (of apparent Arabic descent) pacing around a room in agitation. He’s throwing things into a bag while dialling the same number again and again on his mobile, and it’s always engaged. The man jumps into a car and drives out of the city, still dialling without success. Finally, on the motorway, instead of getting an engaged tone, he gets nothing at all; and then the radio turns to static. The traffic all around slows, then stops, and everyone gets out, because there’s a mushroom cloud behind them.

That’s how SC9 should’ve started – with a bang.

Bill Murray

I always found it a little odd how Bill Murray seemed to be so dismissive of Ghostbusters, and more recently, Groundhog Day. When I watched them properly a few years ago (i.e. when I was an adult and could understand all the jokes), I wondered what his problem was. As I saw some of his more recent movies such as Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers, and The Life Aquatic, I thought that perhaps he preferred being known for slightly more serious or subtle films.

Then I saw these clips from over twenty years ago, and realised the true reason – the man is damn funny all by himself, and it must be tough for him to be known for essentially only two movies.

Bill Murray on the very first David Letterman show in 1982 (it really gets going about two minutes in):

Co-hosting the broadcast of a Cubs baseball game in 1987 (solid gold all the way through).

Steve: Now after doing the lineups and looking at the names of the various clubs here…

Bill: I don’t think there’s any question that the names on the Cubs are a lot easier to pronounce, and they seem to be like baseball players’ names.