Matt has thrown me this ball:
Okay, I will, starting now. If you want more context first, you need to know a) that Matt and I work for Channel 4, commissioning educational stuff for teenagers and b) that we're doing it all online instead of on TV.
How? Read Matt first.
Most of what I commission is games, for the simple fact that teenagers love games. If that's what they love, then let's put the good stuff in there, goes the reasoning. Raph knocked my socks off with his book A Theory of Fun and its super simple core statement that "bored" is what happens when we stop learning. Fun is what we have when we're levelling up on something. "Pop", went something in my head.
Our mission: to get educational stuff to UK teens aged 14-19, stuff that'll help them get from puberty to adulthood, and to get on in life. Matt covers the why and how and where we do our stuff. I'm just going to talk about our games plan here; the comics project, the widgets and the web video project are for another day's post.
Here's the games plan:
Bag the talent
Channel 4 has a remit to support and encourage UK indies, a television term that fits sweetly with videogames too. There are plenty of talented UK videogames indies about - it's a national tradition! - and hopefully many more to come (especially if the government acknowledges this talent situation, rewarding it with tax breaks and more support...).
We're going to do our bit too to help that along. So far we've worked with Introversion, and Oil along with Player Three, and Littleloud, and Preloaded, and we're also working with Beatnik Games, Zombie Cow Studios, Tuna Technologies and Six To Start.
I can't tell you what a joy it is to read that sentence over.There are some amazing people in those companies.
Most of the time I go straight to the indies and ask them if they'd be interested in doing work for us. Sometimes they come to us, but a broadcaster is not a traditional route to publishing, so we're not necessarily an obvious place to pitch an idea to. Although, if you're an indie and you're reading this, well, now you know.
Pick out the important topics (and an interesting angle...)
We've commissioned games about history & the coppers, genetics, online privacy, 1066*, science and women in science, sexual health, self esteem and soon, civil liberties. The linked ones are live, the unlinked ones, not yet. Next year: mental health, death, more on science, and maybe politics. Maybe more sex, too.
(*you'll notice an odd-one-out: 1066 was commissioned from our 10-16 fund and to support a film coming out in May, so while it's still educational, it's more traditional curriculum than we normally do, aye.)
It's hard not commissioning to an exact curriculum. If we were (as the government and the BBC are), we'd just pick a bit, and make a game to it. Box ticked. But we aim to complement what they do, not duplicate it, and to commission for life skills. This usually means: sex, drugs & alcohol, relationships, careers, mental & physical health, money. Sometimes these topics are just amazingly inspirational. Sometimes they're brick walls. It's not easy. You should see the developers' faces when I ask for a game about sex. It usually goes from a smile (rich topic!) to a frown (wait, kids, porn?), to confused (digital penises??), to horror (avatars having sex!), and back to laughing. Usually.
I get a lot of pitches for a game about the stock market, or a game about the Houses of Parliament. I haven't commissioned one of those yet. Encouraging teen interest in politics by playing a game about teen civil liberties though, that's interesting. Encouraging interest in genetics by playing a game about biopiracy and sneezing on people, that's different (would you believe the facts page was the most popular page after games? We weren't entirely expecting that). Understanding the origin of the police force by wading through the disgustingness of 1750s London, that's nice and grimy.
Embrace failure: it's the best learning (but don't run out of money!)
The formula for success is to double your failure, said the founder of IBM. We put a lot of stuff into development, and some stuff doesn't get made: either the concept doesn't work, or the price is too high, or it just doesn't feel right. Of course, not everything that does make the cut will be a success, either. We'll probably put a summary together of the things that didn't hit the mark, and publish it (with tact and delicacy, because not everyone is as proud of failures as they should be, yet). I think that would be useful, certainly for indies wanting to work with us.
Getting the balance right between sowing plenty of seeds and not running out of cash is the trick. There's no magic formula to that, unfortunately.
Get fantastic free-to-play games made
We've given ourselves three years, starting 2008, to move from all-TV to all-online and to make it a success: teens, the educational establishment and our peers will be the judges of whether it's worked. (It's going very well already, though, happily!).
Our stuff needs to be free at the point of consumption - it's public service stuff, after all - so we focus on web games, free PC games, and we've an eye on XBLA/PSN/Wiiware and their various community offerings. iPhone, iPod touch, Android... in a few years, when they're more taken up by teens.
As for fantastic... we try to make sure the indies are in a position to do what they're best at. Start-ups with no track record will be eyeballed more than those already at the forefront of what they do, but that's how it goes with any supplier-client relationship. We're sticklers for quality, but we find that indies are happiest anyway when they're doing something that they know is really, really good.
The hardest part of all. Teens are bombarded with media messages. How do you elbow past the noise and point out we have a signal? Again no magic formula, if only!
We get a mention on Channel 4, blog about the game, call in favours, use Indies' existing fanbases, seed games with teens in schools. We tell teachers. We make sure Digg and Reddit buttons are present, make sure keywords are optimised. Have a presence in social neworks. Make a trailer and put it on YouTube.
What we won't do is spend insane amounts of money on traditional marketing. I've always marvelled at the idea of a $25m game needing $35m of marketing. Doesn't that feel so wrong and weird? I'd immediately make two $25m games, spend $8m on indies doing crazy new things, and have $2m left over for some nu-style publicity. Or better still, spend $60m across 60 indies full stop. So many options that make more sense than blasting a ton of cash on temporary billboards and transient adverts...
So that's it. In sum: find talent, identify the key areas, find a fun angle, sow many seeds, and give the growing ideas as much sunlight as possible. Be useful. Make people smile, and give them something helpful to their lives.
Public service gaming is fantastic. There should be more of it. There will be more of it!