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Making Games More Than an Afterthought

| 6 Aug 2009 21:00
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You have a plan. It's a good plan, one that's proven successful time and again throughout the years, but its effectiveness has been steadily dwindling for some time. You've tweaked and refined, but the truth is undeniable: Your plan no longer works. The solution - to try a new plan - seems obvious, and is exactly what UK broadcaster Channel 4 Education did when it realized that its television programming was failing to reach its intended teenage audience. Yet C4's decision to move its entire budget to online projects - including videogames - is radical, flying wildly in the face of years and years of TV network wisdom. Which, perhaps, is why it's working so well.

Channel 4 Education's story is a bit of an unusual one. Its goal, explains Alice Taylor, Commissioning Editor, is "to reach UK based 14-19 year olds with content that can help improve their lot, to inspire and to encourage them," but a morning television schedule just wasn't reaching them. Recognizing that the typical teen may not switch on the telly for a week but rarely misses a day in front of the computer, in 2008 Channel 4 Education moved its entire budget to online projects.

"So rather than spend £100,000 on an hour of television designed just for the morning slot," says Taylor, "We spend our money elsewhere, aiming to get more teens and more impact for our investment. We still do televisual projects - but now they're native to the internet, and sometimes they act like games, too." What that means in practical terms is that instead of being forced to confine a game's scope to the crumbs left over from a program's production, Channel 4 has the luxury of dropping a fair amount of cash on developers' doorsteps.

"We spend all our budget with UK-based independent production companies, and our game budgets have so far ranged from £40,000 to £800,000. [Bow Street Runners] (made by Littleloud) and 1066 (made by Preloaded) cost about 1.5 times an hour's worth of educational television - unusually large budgets for Flash games," explains Taylor.

The online space's ability to reach millions seems like a no-brainer, but Channel 4's approach is quite unorthodox for a broadcaster. Taylor believes that "as we all evolve into multi-media corporations I think we'll see others following suit," and its hard to deny that C4's success makes a compelling argument. Bow Street Runners, and its developer, Littleloud, earned several shelves' worth of awards, but even more importantly, Channel 4's online projects are actually reaching its intended audience - to the tune of several million players each.

The creation process varies from game to game. Sometimes C4 just has a theme, like "sex education"; sometimes there's a setting, such as England, 1066; and other times the end goal - getting girls more interested in science, for example - is the driving force behind the project. C4's newest game, Smokescreen was created by the Hon brothers' award-winning Six to Start, deals with issues very much a part of our modern life: privacy, security, and the data trails we leave online. Taylor's hope is that the game will help players become more aware of potential dangers like phishing and learn how to watch out for them in the real world. Though Smokescreen is aimed at a teen audience it, like all of C4's games, most definitely appeals to a wider audience. The first chapter is more like an interactive novel than a game, introducing the player to the main characters and their world. As Smokescreen's 13 missions play out over its eight-week run, players will become more involved in the story, combing through emails, voicemails, and CCTV footage, as well as playing twitch and puzzle games. The Hon brothers, perhaps best known for their work on the alternate reality game Perplex City, are masters at creating innovative online experiences, and Smokescreen looks to be no exception.

I've played the first chapter, and although it was brief, it was more than enough to have me impatient for the next installment. It's an intriguing and inventive way to tell a story of paranoia and secrecy, placing you in the role of internet detective. Within just a few minutes, you'll realize that something isn't right with Melissa, Billy, and the other people running the White Smoke network. I can't wait to find out what it is. You'll get your chance when the game officially launches on September 3rd.

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