TV drama and viewing patterns, you may have noticed, have changed over the past decade. Audiences have dwindled and narrowed. DVD and the end user have edged out syndication as the profit-making target. Result: networks, when they actually commission scripted drama, rely more and more on dedicated audiences and word-of-mouth than on universal yet casual appeal. Thus, every major show is an exercise in community-building, balancing reward for careful study and faithful viewing with an open enough a palm as to intrigue, rather than scare off, new viewers.
In describing his recent game based on Discovery Channel Canada's Race to Mars
TV serial, Virtual Heroes' Randy Brown admitted that people often question how his project was a "serious game". As an audience member asked toward the end of the session, what makes a community-fostering game more serious than a traditional licensed game? The general answer is that whereas, say, EA's Lord of the Rings
games are just designed to entertain, the games in this session are meant to further understanding of and enthusiasm for the associated subject, through providing the audience a realistic or "synergistic" experience – a slower, quieter exploration of the concepts at hand than would be feasible in a dramatic context.
To that end, Virtual Heroes' Race to Mars
game dealt out missions on a weekly basis, generally with some association to that week's episode of the TV program, in which one or more players conducted semi-realistic action-adventure missions on the Martian surface. Each scenario would last only about half an hour, and would focus primarily on the conflict between the player and a vast and forbidding environment. To make the game as accessible as possible, the entire package – including all the further scenarios – adds up to a mere 56MB, and, though rather well-detailed, can run entirely on a software renderer.
Mulling Moppets, Mollified
Sven Vincke of Larian Studios discussed a game inspired by a 2003 call from the Belgian network VRT, which was interested not in exploiting an existing property, but in in creating a whole new kids' property that would have a long shelf-life in and of itself as a work of entertainment – yet which would incorporate the network's TV know-how in its development, and which would also incorporate user-generated content.
After mulling the issue, Vincke's team decided on a theme park structure. Since the game was aimed at a wide age range of children, they hid much of the advanced functionality behind challenge-based tasks – including mini-games of many different styles, figuring that everyone would find at least something to like – so as to level the playing field and keep kinds engaged as they grew more sophisticated.
As concerns synergy, completing some challenges would allow players to watch video clips produced by the network; meanwhile, a Mario Kart
-styled racing mini-game featured in regular televised competitions.
Echoing Virtual Heroes' Mars game, Larian's KetnetKick is designed to be playable on PCs from 1997 and running on Windows 95, to compensate for the hand-me-down syndrome potentially faced by the target audience. Beyond the typical legal and safety concerns, Larian also faced some curious logistic and social problems – such as what about children from broken families, who will be constantly shuttled back and forth? To address this issue, player progress is stored on on the server.
Splitting the Bill
Kuma's Dante Anderson more generally discussed episodic advertising-based content – making an analogy to the format of TV shows – and the business and political logistics of this kind of a design. TV networks feel they are losing audiences to games, so more and more are becoming interested in cross-pollinating audiences; using games to draw in and engage viewers with the show, and using the show to lure viewers to the games. In attempt to integrate the two, Anderson describes a tendency for episodic updates to go up one minute after the related episode airs. In Anderson's experience, ad revenue has generally been split half and half with the networks.
One audience member asked if there was any proof that games like these actually draw in new viewers. The consensus was that no one really knows; all anyone knows is that networks seem satisfied when their web traffic goes up.